When I was growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, every year from May through early June we had white asparagus for dinner almost daily. And I often complained, “Och, schon wieder Spargel…” (“Ew, asparagus again…”). “One day,” my mother warned me, “You will long for these days.”
My mother was right. Now as an adult living in the United States I do, indeed, long for the white asparagus bounty of my childhood, especially for Cream of Asparagus Soup, which is hands-down my favorite white asparagus dish.
There is no white asparagus to speak of in the United States. Once in a while white asparagus pops up at the grocery store but it has traveled far (most of it is imported from Latin America) and its taste does not compare to locally grown white asparagus in Germany.
The farms around me in Pennsylvania grow green and purple asparagus and for the past two springs I have tried to coax locally grown asparagus into a soup that satisfies my craving for smooth velvety white asparagus soup.
I feel that my soup recipe is as good as it can get so I am sharing it today.The white asparagus of my childhood came from my father’s Schrebergarten (allotment garden) in Frankfurt. There were several long asparagus beds or more precisely, hills, in which white asparagus is grown. Sometimes I was asked to help with the harvest, which was actually fun: spotting where the soil showed a slight bump before the tip of the asparagus would break through.
In hindsight, I find it rather amazing that my father was so passionate about growing asparagus because for him, the immigrant from Tunisia, white asparagus was an acquired taste. He was only introduced to it as an adult but he quickly adapted to the white asparagus craze that befalls Germany every spring.
And white asparagus is the spring food in Germany. Between April and mid-June during asparagus season almost every restaurant has at least one asparagus dish on its menu – cream of asparagus soup, asparagus salad, asparagus with hollandaise sauce or drizzled with melted butter, accompanied with slices of boiled ham and new potatoes.
White asparagus requires soil that is loose and free of rocks. This map shows you where white asparagus is grown in Germany, on a total size of land equaling 35,000 soccer fields. Even that is not enough to satisfy the Germans’ taste for white asparagus, because Germany also imports white asparagus from Greece, Spain and Peru.
Not all white asparagus is created equal. There are three distinct EU classes, which determine the price. The most expensive is the Extra class. The spears must be at least 12 mm thick, practically straight, the tips compact, and only a faint pink tint is allowed on the spears. The next class down is Class I, its spears must be at least 10 mm thick but may be slightly curved and a faint pink tint may appear on the tips and the spears. Class II spears must be at least 8 mm thick and may be less well formed, more curved and their tips may be slightly open and may have a green tint.
The cheapest asparagus is the non-classified Bruchspargel, literally broken asparagus – odds and ends of short and long, thick and thin, and white and tinted spears. It is used for soup.There are two main differences between green and white asparagus. The first one is taste. White asparagus has a much milder, buttery taste than green and purple asparagus with its earthy, robust taste.
The other difference is that white asparagus always requires peeling. Even top-quality asparagus is virtually inedible if unpeeled. White asparagus also needs to be cooked longer than green or purple asparagus.
The farm-fresh bunches of green and purple asparagus that I can buy around here would certainly not qualify for any of the strict EU classes. But when I close my eyes and eat a spoonful of this soup, it is as close as I can get to the taste of real white asparagus soup while being 5,000 miles away.Almost White Asparagus Soup
To create the special velvety texture of this soup, the asparagus should be very fresh. Older spears tend to be fibrous. Use only thick spears that can be peeled; if the spears are too thin, there will be nothing left after peeling.
The soup can be prepared in advance and reheated.
1 large bunch (1 pound/450 g) green or purple asparagus
2½ tablespoons (35 g) + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
¼ to ½ cup (60 to 120 g) heavy cream, to taste
- Snap off the ends of the asparagus and set them aside. Cut off the heads and set aside. Peel the asparagus spears. An easy way to do this is to lie them down on your work surface. Chop the peeled spears into 2-inch (2.5 cm) pieces.
- Place the end pieces and the peels a large saucepan. Add 6 cups (1,450 ml) water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium and boil, covered, for 5 minutes. Strain the liquid into a heatproof bowl. Discard the peels.
- Melt 2½ tablespoons butter in the saucepan. Add the flour and stir in the flour. Cook over low heat until it begins to turn beige, stirring constantly. Gradually whisk in the hot broth, whisking well after each addition so there are no lumps. Add the asparagus pieces and bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered (this maintains the bright color) for 10 minutes.
- While the soup is cooking, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small frying pan. Add the asparagus tips and cook over low heat until soft, turning them a few times.
- Turn off the heat. Using a stick blender, puree the soup until very smooth. If you don’t have a stick blender, puree the soup in small batches in a regular blender.
- Add lemon juice and season the soup to taste with nutmeg, salt, and white pepper. Stir in the cream and the asparagus tips and reheat the soup but do not boil again. Serve hot.